BHM Sickle and Heart [BHM, Fantasy, Romance]

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Have I been reading a ton of fantasy lately and going “someone needs to write all this as way less thin & mono-normative - oh **** that someone is me”? Maybe. Enjoy!

Sickle and Heart
by Ghostboo

Chapter One

The slight tightening of Kelvi’s small green body around her wrist alerted Odine to the imminent arrival of Meera’s own familiar. Rocking back from her position on her hands and knees from which she had been cleaning the floor of the study, Odine rested on her ankles, glancing down at her snake familiar before turning her attention to the door. Moments later, Felix, an admittedly gorgeous siamese cat, sauntered into the room. Odine bit down on a sigh, both she and Kelvi looking back at the mostly pristinely clean floor they’d been working on for hours. She wasn’t permitted to use her magic, naturally, and not for any real reason other than to make it more difficult. Though the truth was - and she’d never admit this to her employers - Odine actually found more difficulty in minor helpful spells than almost anything else. Chances are, she’d have cleaned by hand anyway.

Meera Strickland (and by extension, Felix) was the child of the landed gentry that employed Odine. Their estate was sprawling and beautiful, and Odine, as a handmaid of Meera’s, was far from their only servant. Sometimes Odine thought she certainly had the honor of being the most despised, though it was hard to tell. Probably something in the way Odine continued to carry herself, despite how she’d fallen in life.

Odine had been born in the far north - which was evident to anyone who laid eyes on her. Where most citizens of the kingdom boasted tanned skin and flowing dark hair, Odine had the coloring of a snowstorm. Her skin was hardly a shade or two above paper white, her platinum silver-white hair similar. Where it had once been long, while she worked in this grand house, Odine kept her hair short - causing it to curl up and bunch about her head in a decidedly unfashionable halo. Her eyes were light too - the outer edges an icy blue-grey, the inner corners flecked with gold, and the ring that met them in the middle a similar green to her snake familiar, Kelvi.

But the northern territory, once stewarded by Odine’s own parents, had fallen to the monsters. No one ventured there now. Odine was one of many refugees who had made their way into the central part of the kingdom, and she was lucky enough to find work - though not lucky enough to have had her parents with her. Thanks to them, she had made it out alive - though sometimes she wished the positions were reversed.

“Scat, Felix,” Odine said quietly - and was, of course, ignored. The cat slunk past her and into the clean room - rubbing his body against everything he passed, aside from Odine. Long white and brown hairs drifted off and landed around the previously pristine room. “Oh, gods -” Odine hissed, cutting herself off as Kelvi tightened around her wrist, both of them realizing in that moment that she had misstepped.

“What are you saying, Dandy?” Meera’s beautiful form filled the doorway immediately, and Odine had to stifle another sigh. Meera was also a blonde, but unlike Odine’s icy curls, Meera’s hair fell in comforting honey gold waves to her thin, tanned shoulders. Her eyes were round and brown, easily manipulated into an innocent expression around others as needed - which certainly wasn’t the case when she was around Odine. She enjoyed pulling out the nickname Dandy, short for Dandylion, as an insult comparing Odine and her pale halo of hair to the weed. “My, it looks dreadful in here. What have you been doing?”

“I’ve been cleaning,” Odine replied in her low, quiet voice. She held it even. “As you know.”

“No, Dandy, it doesn’t look like you have been,” Meera snapped, clearly irritated by the unruffled expression on the face of the servant in front of her. That didn’t change as Meera stomped further into the room. “Once again, you expect us to continue to feed and house you while you do nothing. It’s unacceptable, and I convince my parents moreso of it every day.” Meera peered at Odine - still, nothing changed on the pale girl’s face. Felix rubbed against Meera’s legs.

“Fine, you can do something else,” Meera finally said. “I require apples for a snack. Go and fetch me some.”

Silently, Odine got to her feet. But just before she exited the room -

“Oh, and Odine? I expect my apples to be the very crispest the glade has to offer. If you return with any that are unsuitable, expect to go back out immediately.”

Finally, there was a tensing in Odine’s jaw. But she merely nodded and left the room, hearing Meera’s coos at Felix from behind her.

Meera’s family estate included the first layers of an apple grove - which meant that the magical wards that kept monsters from breaking in (most of the time) included those as a safe spot to forage. But the particularly crisp apples Meera referred to were not the ones closest to the estate - they were the ones growing by the river, in the middle of the glade. Where there was no additional protection for any travelers, and the close-knit trees formed shadows that were perfect for any hungry creatures to hide in.

Stifling a sigh, Odine retrieved a wicker basket along with her walking stick. Self carved, it was a little shorter than Odine’s petite frame, with a firm oak base and a curved half-moon sickle at the top. Now as prepared as possible, Odine made her way out of the house and into the yard - hesitating only briefly at the border of the family’s land, and therefore, at the border of their protections - before plunging into the forest.

For such a deadly landscape, Odine had to admit to the relief that the trees offered. Coming from the north, she was unused to the summer heat of the central kingdom, even now, nearly ten years later. The shade of the trees elicited a very soft sigh of relief from Odine as some of the sun’s heat was foiled, though Kelvi squeezed her upper arm in warning to stay quiet as he slithered up for further warmth himself.

Carefully, quietly, Odine made her way nearly to the river’s edge. She could catch glimpses from where she was, and the running water would hopefully disguise some of her sounds as she set down the basket and began to gather the reddest (and therefore, crispiest) apples that she could find.

A few minutes in, however, Odine must have made a misstep in her careful moves - or perhaps she was just unlucky. A slithering in the tall grasses behind her announced the arrival of - something. Odine gritted her teeth, took hold of her walking stick, and turned.

The problem with living alongside monsters AND animals is that it could often be either, causing many people of the kingdom to attack first, check the noise was dangerous later. Many didn’t see an issue with this, even when it was an unsuspecting person hurt or even killed. But Odine did. And as she saw tall, slick, waving stalks in a grey-blue rising out of the grass headed towards her, she still didn’t attack. Those stalks could belong to a bushslug - a harmless herbivore that had a symbiotic relationship with many of the fungi it lived near - or its cousin, a fangslug, that hungered for human blood and human blood alone.

As the creature pushed into view and revealed its thick, gelatinous body beneath the waving stalks along with several rows of triangular, razor-sharp teeth, multiple things happened at once. The fangslug charged for Odine (as best as the terrifying, if slow-moving, creature could), Odine swung with her walking stick, and a deep shout echoed through the forest from behind Odine.

With the crescent moon end of her walking stick embedded in the now-dead fangslug, helped along by a silent curse that invited the life of the creature on the other end of the sickle to drain upon contact, Odine blinked and turned.

A mountain of a man was emerging from behind a tree, looking from the dead fangslug to Odine and then back again. He was at least a foot taller than her, with close-cut auburn hair and a matching beard. Even just his chest was twice as broad as Odine - impressive, for though she was short, she was far from fashionably lithe - but that wasn’t even his most expansive feature. Below a noticeably strong chest, a large belly curved out and over until it rested half-atop his belt. Which Odine recognized as part of a commissioned uniform - the man was a soldier, making his rounded form all the more interesting. Didn’t soldiers have limited rations and near-constant physical training?

The soldier cleared his throat, and Odine lifted her eyes, realizing too late that she had been staring. His deep grey eyes looked into hers from beneath a furrowed, concerned brow.

“You killed the fangslug,” the man said, his voice flat but with a slight lilt of confusion, at the exact same time that Odine said:

“I’m sorry, were you speaking to me?”

Both broke off and stared at each other. The soldier’s large hand rested on a sword at his side, the impressive curved hilt lightly pressing into his rounded love handle.

“Yes,” Odine said finally, quietly. “I did.”

“I was just shouting for you to get out of the way,” the soldier grumbled out his own answer. “What are you doing out here alone, anyway?”

“Collecting apples,” Odine replied.

“And that’s worth nearly getting killed for?”

“I didn’t get nearly killed.” The soldier merely raised an eyebrow, though it was the truth. Odine paused before adding: “And I don’t have a choice.”

“You don’t appear to be starving,” the soldier replied bluntly, then blinked as he realized what had come out of his mouth. “Sorry, I didn’t mean -” and Odine immediately quirked her own eyebrow - a half smile appearing on her pale lips as she looked the man up and down. Allowing her gaze to linger on the overhang of his belly, the soldier’s tan skin flushed across his cheeks. “You’re collecting them for someone else.”

“Yes,” Odine said simply, but allowed the half-smile to stay on her face. You got it.

“A husband?”

Odine wrinkled her nose.

“That’s good, I suppose,” the soldier said, then seemed to realize his words again. “Simply because any man who would expect this of you is - not - you know.”

Odine’s half-smile slowly became a full one.

“Feel free to save me from myself here anytime,” he finally groused, releasing his sword. Despite his shout, no further monsters had attacked - likely due to seeing this enormity of a man as they got closer and turning right around, if Odine had to guess.

“For my…employers.” Odine couldn’t bring herself to say mistress about Meera.

“Ah,” the soldier said. “May I escort you back, then?”

“Yes,” Odine assented, resisting the urge to assure him that she didn’t actually need it. He saw the dead fangslug in front of her, and didn’t seem unintelligent - he must realize she could hold her own. He was simply being polite.

In silence, which was most comfortable for Odine as it was how she spent most of her time, the pair walked back to the estate. The soldier’s brow furrowed further as the trees began to thin and they neared the wards.

“You work for the Stricklands?”

“I do.”

“But there are apple trees on the property.”

“Those apples are not crispy enough,” Odine said with a wry smile. “Supposedly.”

As they emerged through the last of the trees, onto the lawn of the Strickland estate, the back door flew open. Odine stifled a sigh and turned to the soldier to thank him - but he was nowhere to be seen. Cocking her head in confusion, Odine didn’t allow Meera’s shriek as she flew down the stairs to visibly rattle her in any way.

“Where have you been? Gods, I’ve been starving. And you were gone so long for…” Meera stopped right in front of Odine and stared into the nearly empty basket. “Three apples? What is wrong with you?”

Odine didn’t answer right away, still looking around the yard.

“Fangslug,” she said finally, but Meera wasn’t listening.

“This…this is not a crisp apple,” the heiress seethed, picking one of the fruits out of the basket. “I can tell! You didn’t go into the woods at all, did you? You’ve just been lurking nearby, doing gods know what, as usual. You’ve gone too far this time, Dandy, and my parents won’t stand for it. Unless you go back out, right now, and stay out. If you return in less than four hours, and with less than two basketfuls of apples, then I shall see to it you are dismissed.”

Odine didn’t dignify this near-certain death sentence for most with a response. A slight ripple in the air a few feet away from her right shoulder had caught her attention, and she watched calmly as the soldier who had walked her home stepped out of the invisibility charm he had cast on himself as soon as Meera had opened the door.

Meera, meanwhile, let out a yelp as she saw the man emerge from seemingly nowhere. Felix, who had followed her triumphantly out the door, arched and hissed.

Until they got a good look at him, and paled.

“You would condemn this woman to the monsters of the forest for apple quality?” The soldier spoke before Meera could, his voice a rumbling warning.

“N-no, I…I didn’t…well, you don’t know the whole…and, she…” Meera, normally perfectly composed in her beauty and station in life, couldn’t seem to find a grasp on her words. And before she was able to, the back door opened again, revealing Meera’s father.

Calsum Strickland made his way down to the lawn, and Odine saw his own expression morph from concerned to horrified as he got a good look at the soldier.

“Sir, your daughter appears to be doing her best to get this young woman killed. A woman in your household, and therefore, under your protection. Do you condone this?”

Unlike Meera, who had simply begun to blurt whatever she could think at the confrontation, Calsum Strickland took a deep breath.

“No, I do not. But I’m sure this must be some misunderstanding.”

“There is no misunderstanding,” the soldier said, his tone getting icier by the second. “I heard it all myself after accompanying this young lady back from a fangslug attack, which she endured solely to retrieve crispier apples for your daughter. Do you believe this is the behavior that the prince desires in a companion? Or shall I mention something to his highness?”

Calsum Strickland and Meera went even paler as Odine calmly blinked once, twice, and then turned her attention to the soldier. The prince? So that was why the Stricklands had allowed themselves to be lectured. This was no ordinary grunt - this had to be a member of the prince’s personal guard. Someone the Stricklands believed had influence over the royal family, enough so to ruin Meera’s prospects at the palace.

For several months ago, an invitation had arrived at the Strickland estate. Ones like it sent to wealthy and powerful families all over the kingdom who had marriageable-aged daughters. Informing them of a competition to take place at the palace in the upcoming year, where young women would show off their skills in education, homemaking, and magic. The top prospects were assured a place furthering their schooling at the palace, with the prince, the invitation said. What it didn’t say was filled in by all who read it - for the true winner, the actual prize would be the prince. The time to find an appropriate bride was nigh. And the way the royal family would ensure this was, although any lady could technically participate, they would have to be sponsored by a family of means that had been invited. Effectively weeding out any and all undesirable low-status prospects while the lords and ladies of the land put up their own daughters and their own daughters only.

“Sir Fisher,” Calsum Strickland said slowly, and Odine blinked again. So this wasn’t just a member of the prince’s personal guard - it was the member of the prince’s personal guard. The captain of the guard, and the prince’s personal bodyguard, Sir Dominic Fisher. No wonder the man clearly had access to some excellent and plentiful food. “Surely we can work something out. Meera may have made a mistake, and she will be appropriately chastised for it, but taking away her future would be…excessive.”

“Would it?” Dominic Fisher said, his eyebrows raising in disbelief. “I’m not certain I agree. Miss?” He turned his furious gaze onto Odine.

“Yes?” Odine replied slowly, carefully.

“Do you agree? Is your life not worth Meera’s likely temporary position in the palace tournament? As the wronged party, the decision is yours.”

“Meera should be permitted to compete,” Odine said, her tone still even. “But so should I.”

There was a brief moment of silence as each person on the lawn regarded Odine with varying levels of shock. Even Dominic Fisher seemed surprised, but his expression quickly morphed into one of cool fascination.

“So it shall be. Strickland, you will sponsor -” he trailed off and looked back at Odine.

“Odine,” she supplied quietly.

“-Odine, as well as your daughter Meera. Though I sincerely hope Meera does some self reflection before arrival. We don’t need any more treachery in the palace.”

Before he left, Dominic Fisher caught Odine’s eyes with his stormy grey gaze one last time. They were both silent, though Odine’s head inclined in thanks, which he returned before turning and walking back out into the forest.

Odine’s face betrayed nothing, but a warmth spread in her chest that Kelvi took advantage of by curling up in a nearby pocket.
 
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Chapter Two

Odine had been in love with the crown prince her entire life.

Okay, certainly there must have been time before she felt this way. But much like when people discussed in hushed tones how there didn’t used to be nearly so many monsters roaming and attacking in these lands, she didn’t quite believe it. Her memory only included the necessary vigilance for constant monster encounters, and her feelings about the prince.

The first time she had seen him was only at a glance. In her northern homeland, a parade had been thrown in honor of the visit from the royal family. They were bringing their son and heir for the first time to their dealings with Odine’s family, the stewards of the land. Odine had sat near her parents high up on a wooden platform near the road, allowing her the perfect view of their arrival.

Prince Amory Coates was a few years older than Odine, likely around the same age as Dominic, and from the moment she saw him, he took her breath away. Unlike the stern gaze of his father the king, or the wavering concern of his mother, Prince Amory was beaming and waving to all around their carriage. He had sandy hair that fell in soft curls to his ears, a bright smile, lightly freckled and tanned skin, and the deepest brown eyes Odine had ever seen. His high cheekbones bunched up with soft fat as he smiled, emphasizing an adorable double chin atop his plump form. Odine had never seen anyone like him, and fell on sight.

Of course, she had been determined too young to join for the royal banquet and other meetings. Which Odine, normally a quiet and respectful child, took great issue with. Her parents had to leave her sobbing, baffled by her sudden behavioral problem, with a nursemaid more than once. But Odine quickly learned that if she bid her parents farewell with a smile, then she wouldn’t have a nursemaid called - and then she could sneak out and at least spy on Prince Amory from afar. It got her through that trip.

Before the fall of the northern lands, there was one more visit from the royal family. This time, Odine was invited to sit at the dinner table and engage - for all the good it did, as absolutely nothing had changed about her feelings in the years since she’d last seen Prince Amory, and she clammed up even more than usual whenever he was in the room. He’d only grown rounder, happier, and more handsome since the last time she’d seen him, and Odine felt her already few words swallowed by the great hammering in her chest whenever he was around. Still, he was perfectly polite with the silent, often-staring younger girl, obviously used to attention of all kinds. With every pleasant word out of his mouth, Odine’s adoration grew.

Not that she’d had much time to truly think about it since the death of her parents and the fall of her home. All her energy went to getting from one day to the next - surviving monster attacks, household servitude politics, and all the struggles that the kingdom had to offer those without. Even when she was relatively settled into the Strickland estate, Odine didn’t allow her mind to often wander towards thinking of those better days and her time with the prince - until the invitation had shown up.

Now, next month, Odine would finally have her chance.
 
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Chapter Three

In the prince’s room of the palace, away from the prying and often judgmental eyes of his parents, Prince Amory Coates and Sir Dominic Fisher had dinner together.

“Gods, this bird is incredible,” Amory said sincerely, sucking a bit of tomato cream sauce off his finger. “What do you think, Dom?”

“Mmm,” the soldier agreed, taking a bite of the dish in front of him. “Very good.”

“I’m sure you miss palace food when you’re out on your patrols, don’t you?” Amory asked, cocking his head towards his companion with a cheeky smile.

“‘Course I do. But I can’t just stay in the palace and eat with you,” Dominic replied, his tone the kind of affectionately weary that showed they’d had this discussion many times.

“Why not? You’d think that’s the job of the prince’s personal guard, wouldn’t you?”

“In part, yes. But if this was all I did, I’d be twice the size I am now. And this is already not exactly befitting a soldier,” Dominic said dryly, giving the hang of his chubby stomach slightly off to the right of his bellybutton a pinch between his thumb and forefinger. Amory watched, grinned, and then leaned back in his own seat.

“And why not? What’s wrong with being this size?” Amory asked, patting his own especially round middle for emphasis. While Dominic’s fat clearly sat above the muscle necessary for his work, Amory was much blatantly softer. So although they may well have been within a literal stone’s throw of each other, weight wise, Amory and his rounded features gave the initial appearance of plump while Dominic’s straddled the line between that and strong.

“Nothing for a prince, your highness,” Dominic replied, throwing in his friend’s title with a hint of snark. “But for the one supposedly tasked with protecting his life, many if not most might prefer a swift guard rather than a stocky barrel.”

“Well, I don’t,” Amory said, waving his right hand at Dominic while he took another bite of his food with the other. “And my parents certainly don’t agree there’s nothing wrong with me being this size either, so I suppose we all simply have to agree to disagree.”

“As you wish,” Dominic said with a shake of his head, returning his own attention to his food. Amory watched as he did, his brown eyes tracing over his guard and childhood friend’s stocky form as the soldier sat up in his chair and tried to measure his bites. Still leaning back in his own chair, Amory ran one hand through his wavy hair while the other lightly patted fingers into his soft belly.

“How was this patrol?”

“Interesting,” Dominic replied. “I believe we’ll have one more for your little wife competition.”

Amory groaned.

“Gods, don’t remind me. Our time to dine like this grows short.”

Dominic caught the prince’s eye with his deep grey gaze.

“But not forever, Dom. I promised you I would never marry anyone who had an issue with…” Amory trailed off, but leaned back up with a soft oof long enough to reach Dominic’s hand and give it a soft squeeze. “We’ll still have time together.”

“You may not have a choice,” Dominic replied, a clear echo of another conversation they’d had many times before. “And I never want you to feel you need to shirk your duties.” For me remained unspoken, but understood by both.

“I know,” Amory said, sitting back again. He took his hand back and rested it on his belly, but continued to hold his oldest friend and first kiss’s gaze with a soft smile. Both men had had many dalliances since then, of course - both readily enjoying the company or either women or not - but a new long term partner expected to bear heirs to the kingdom would be another beast entirely. “So how’s the new competitor you met, then?”

“Honestly? Not as insufferable as most,” Dominic replied around a bite of asparagus with creamy hollandaise.

“Oh, well that is interesting,” Amory mused, turning back to his own plate and beginning to scrape up the sauce left behind. “I look forward to meeting her.”

“Must you?” Dominic asked with a wince as Amory’s fork scraped along the plate.

“Too loud?”

“Yes, highness.”

“Sorry Dom,” Amory replied with a wink, setting down his fork - but rather than going without the leftover sauce entirely, he began to run his plump fingers along the plate to catch the remains, popping them in his mouth once they had made it across the dish.

“You’re shameless,” Dominic said with an eye roll, trying not to smirk as he watched the prince out of the corner of his eye.

“I do my best.”
 
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Chapter Four

One month later, Odine had survived the attacks of two bushbubs and one skittler that had made their way through the Strickland’s wards, sewn herself a couple more less pathetic looking dresses, and done her best to practice more minor spells that many in the upper crust looked for in a wife. Kelvi would stay wrapped comfortingly around her wrist or neck, but even with his boost to her power, they didn’t come easily. Not like the spells she used to depose the monsters that had crept their way into Strickland’s halls.

As there was no chance that Meera, who had spent all month silently glowering at Odine, would share her carriage, Odine packed up her few belongings and walked to the palace when the time came. It was only half a day’s journey, on open and well-guarded road, and she made it only having glimpsed a creature or two in the woods beyond.

She eased the grip on her walking stick as soon as she crossed the bridge to the palace. The entire area was warded, of course, with the outer ring of housing belonging to the lords and other gentry, while the inner castle was the home of the royal family. Uncertain but keeping her face carefully neutral, Odine made her way through the inner streets towards the central castle.

Upon quietly disclosing to the guards at the door that she was a competitor, her name verified under Calsum Strickland’s, she was allowed inside. The vast entrance hall could have housed several elephants, though it was currently empty and nearly silent. Clearly, the other competitors were already settled, or…something. Tightening her grip on her walking stick and bag, Odine took a few more tentative steps inside, looking around at the enormously high stone walls and ceiling.

“It’s you,” a gruff voice called from somewhere off to the right, and Odine looked in surprise as the large form of Dominic Fisher began to make his way down a set of stairs. Odine shifted her head down into a respectful nod, her body following into a brief curtsy as she stood in front of him. “No need for that,” Dominic said. “I’m just a soldier.” Odine looked at him curiously, and he begrudgingly continued, “okay, a knight, but there’s still no need. The Stricklands left you to fend for yourself, have they? Can’t say I’m too surprised.”

Odine nodded.

“Okay, well, come with me. Some spare rooms in the palace have been allocated for the girls whose families don’t have property within the palace walls. I’ll get you set up in one.”

“Thank you.”

“‘Welcome, Miss…?” Dominic looked at her, realizing he didn’t yet know her last name.

“You can just call me Odine.”

Dominic’s grey eyes immediately narrowed slightly, but he didn’t argue as he turned and began to walk away. After a reassuring squeeze from Kelvi on her arm, Odine started to follow him.

Odine considered herself a fast walker for her size, but it was still difficult to keep up with Dominic’s long strides as he moved through the winding halls of the castle. Every guard they passed nodded to him in deference, keeping reasonably professional faces as they watched Odine go by too. Only one offered a semi-smirk, and Odine realized a beat too late that this was likely due to the way her blue-green eyes were locked onto the ripples of Dominic’s thick legs and rear as he moved powerfully forward. Ducking her head further to hide an involuntary blush that would overtake her pale features, Odine hurried on.

After more twists and turns than she could keep straight, Odine stopped behind Dominic at a solid, narrow wooden door with a small bundle of purple berries amidst green leaves hanging from a hook in the middle. Dominic pushed it open and gestured Odine to enter first - and she had to admit, she didn’t go out of her way to keep her arm clutching her walking stick from brushing against Dominic’s strong but soft middle on the way in. Still, she heard him inhale deeply as she did.

By contrast, Odine exhaled as she took in the expanse of the room. By royal standards it may have been shabby, but she hadn’t stayed in anything even close to this size since the north fell. Two high-backed soft chairs rested off to the left of the entrance, and back and to the right was a large bed draped in purple canopy. Several tapestries covered the walls, some fraying, but still beautiful. Odine set her bag down, slowly, as she took it all in.

“So tell me,” Dominic said, standing in the doorway that had looked massive until his full bulk occupied it. “You could have just gotten your revenge. Instead, now you’re here too. Is this a gambit to get away from the Strickland estate, or towards the prince?”

To Dominic’s complete shock, Odine’s face - which had maintained a calm, level expression the entire time he had known her, including as she slaughtered a fangslug - blushed a light pink as she tore her icy green eyes away from his.

“Can it be both?” She finally replied, her low voice still even despite the betrayal of her flush.

“I suppose.”

Dominic watched as Odine slowly approached the bed in the room, walking stick in hand, then began to move it in gentle circles as she murmured something.

“What are you doing, Odine?”

“Just warding the bed, sir. So I can get some rest.”

“Since you’re forcing me to refer to you as your given name for now, you may as well call me Dominic. And you don’t need to do that here.”

“I’m certain you and your men are very good at your work, Dominic, but there’s no harm in being safe.”

“We are, but that’s not what I mean. Monsters can’t get in to the palace.”

“No, but -“ Odine paused. “Sorry, do you mean at all?”

“Correct. No monsters get into the castle walls.”

Odine froze in her spellcasting position, the wheels turning in her head.

“But how is that possible?” She murmured, half to herself, half to Dominic. No matter the power of the magic cast, eventually, some creature would be able to wriggle its way through any protections. They would find the weakness, and exploit it.

“That’s been the case as long as I’ve been here,” Dominic replied - not an answer, but the truth. “It’s why I continue patrols in the forest and assist those who need it. And some who don’t.”

Despite her shock, Odine collected herself enough to meet Dominic’s dry words with a quirked eyebrow. The silence seemed to stretch - not with anything uncomfortable or awkward, but something - heavy. Odine ignored the heightened pound of her heart as she set her walking stick gently against the wall.

“So I can just…sleep.”

“You can just sleep,” Dominic confirmed. After another moment where their eyes met, his deep grey ones on her ever-widening green ones, he cleared his throat. “I’ll leave you to it, and will see you for the introductory gathering tomorrow.”

“Thank you,” Odine said, almost too quietly to be heard. Each gently nodded their head in a gesture of farewell, and soon, Odine was alone with her thoughts and the gentle slither of Kelvi against her shoulder.
 
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Chapter Five

After coming to terms with the actual safety of her lodgings - not just relative, as every home she’d ever had had been - Odine fell into a deep sleep. When she woke, it was late, with darkness having fallen outside the windows between her room’s tapestries. Using only part of a spell that, in its entirety, would start a raging and all-consuming wildfire, Odine lit a lantern and decided on a walk. There was a bookshelf in between the room’s two seats, but it only had a couple rows of entirely army strategy manuals and cookbooks, so Odine went in search of the library.

With the help of a couple guards she passed in the hall giving her directions, Odine found herself in the palace library ten minutes or so later. She had never seen anything like it - even Kelvi emerged briefly from her warm sleeve to peer at the burstingly full shelves and high ceilings. Odine had thought her family’s library in the north to be an impressive collection, but this was easily triple the size. Still, the dust that settled onto the shelves and passages also hinted at a surprising lack of use.

Odine took a few more tentative steps in, trying not to cringe at the squeak of her lantern. No monsters here, she had to remind herself. Somehow. Forcing herself to continue moving, Odine passed between two stacks on navigation, keeping her eye out for something to truly transport her - adventure, romance, or ideally, both.

What she didn’t expect was for the stacks to end in an open area with a large rectangular table, more bookshelves surrounding it. And she certainly never expected to see the curly sandy head she’d recognize anywhere bent over a thick book on the table, lost in its words. She froze, but her cavalier movements after reassuring herself that the palace was monster-free had announced her presence. Prince Amory looked up, caught her eyes, and smiled broadly.

Odine marveled at the fact that she didn’t faint right then and there.

“Hello,” Prince Amory said, his voice deeper than she remembered, but just as jovial. She swallowed, wincing imperceptibly as Kelvin gave her thumb a small bite to spur her to action.

“Your Highness,” she said, dropping into as low of a curtsy as she could muster. “I apologize for the intrusion. I didn’t realize you would be here.”

“How would you? It’s no intrusion, please,” he said, gesturing for Odine to move closer. She did, slowly, trying not to think about the dark circles under her eyes and frizzy hair that had greeted her in the mirror after her nap. She stood in front of the table, directly across from the prince, behind a low wooden chair. “What are you looking for?”

“A book,” Odine replied, then cracked a half-smile as the prince snorted. “Of course. I…am looking for stories on thrilling heroics, and…” she tried not to think too much about the bodice-rippers as she gazed into the handsome face across from her. “Anything else to transport me.”

“Ah, you find the palace that unfortunate already?” Amory said, jokingly. Odine shook her head.

“No, just the opposite. This is the first time in years I haven’t wanted to transport myself,” she said, realizing the truth as she spoke it. “Perhaps I should find something to keep me more present, now. Architectural layouts of the palace? A history of the Coates?” Odine’s throat already felt dry from speaking so much, but it was worth it as Amory laughed aloud.

“No, gods forbid, I would never condemn you to that fate. Don’t let my teasing dissuade you from your excellent preferences.” Amory leaned back in his seat, studying Odine. As he did, he interlaced his fingers over his broad belly, and Odine realized he was only wearing a thin nightshirt over loose linen trousers. She could faintly see the peach and cocoa of his skin through the shirt’s material, and she gripped firmly onto the back of the chair in front of her. Without it to steady herself, she felt her knees preparing to give way. “Have we met, miss? What’s your name?”

“Odine,” she replied, hesitating only slightly beforehand. She played her cards regarding her heritage close to her chest - it was easy to tell she was northern by appearance alone, but learning she was the child of the stewards often elicited unpredictable responses. Whether people felt sorry for her or believed the fall to be the fault of her parents, their behavior towards her almost always changed upon learning her last name.

“Oh! The surprise entry to the tourny, eh? Dom mentioned meeting you on his patrols.”

“Yes,” Odine said, forcing herself to look away from Prince Amory’s deep, searching brown eyes - and realizing she was, instead, now just staring at his rounded belly resting beneath his hands and thin shirt. She dropped her gaze further, and following another nip from Kelvi, asked: “what are you reading?”

“Nothing exciting,” Amory admitted. “Just a reference guide to the geography of the western plains I need to familiarize myself with before the next council meeting. I tend to prefer books that ‘transport’ me, as well. Though many written that way feature a prince, which feels a bit too close to home - or not close enough - to enjoy.”

“Not close enough?”

“Oh, you just don’t read about too many princes who look like me,” Amory said, gesturing with a hand in a dismissive gesture as he smiled around the words. Still, Odine’s expression shifted just slightly to allow a crease of concern between her eyebrows. “For good reason, I suppose, but I don’t really need literature on top of my parents telling me I don’t measure up. Or rather, over measure.” In case it was in any way unclear, Amory allowed his hands to unravel and squeeze a handful of the thick, tanned flesh at his waistline, grinning.

Odine cocked her head, just slightly, and Amory’s smile faded a bit in uncertainty until she quietly spoke up.

“I would quite like to read a book that featured a prince that looks like you. As we will all be lucky to have a ruler that looks like you, when it comes to it.”

“You flatter me,” Amory said, his jovial tone hiding a hint of embarrassment. Odine, who never wasted words on being insincere or flattering in any way, tightened her jaw imperceptibly.

“That isn’t my intention.”

“No? What is?”

“To express that the world I wish to transport to is not ever one where all princes would look the same.”

The words hung in the air as the pair locked eyes, the books around them swallowing up any hint of sound from the outside world.

“Miss Odine, I believe I am looking forward to tomorrow now more than I have been so far,” Amory said, standing out of his chair. Odine, to her credit, didn’t remove her gaze from his face. “Let’s find you something heroic before I retire for the night, hm?”

Odine said nothing, merely nodded, as she wondered if she was about to wake from a dream. Allowing herself one long look down the prince’s lightly jiggling form as he began to move into the stacks, Odine followed, biting her lip against the noise that threatened to escape as Amory turned sideways to squeeze through a section about the south sea’s aquatic plants.
 
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I was just thinking to myself by the end of the second chapter that I liked Sir Dominic, but I also liked the sound of the prince and I was wishing she could somehow have both. Then, the next chapter I find out the two love interests like each other?! *starts chanting “Threesome! Threesome!” in the background*


I’m really enjoying this so far!
 
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I was just thinking to myself by the end of the second chapter that I liked Sir Dominic, but I also liked the sound of the prince and I was wishing she could somehow have both. Then, the next chapter I find out the two love interests like each other?! *starts chanting “Threesome! Threesome!” in the background*


I’m really enjoying this so far!
The true enemies-to-lovers is me & love triangles
 
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Chapter Six

When the knock at her door came the next morning, announcing the time to join the rest of the competitors in the ballroom, Odine knew she hadn’t done the dark circles under her eyes any favors. But, as she recalled the final moments of the evening last night - Prince Amory personally selecting several romantic fairy tales and swashbuckling adventures and offering them to Odine, their hands brushing as he did, and the promises exchanged to share her views on the books - she knew it was worth it.

Changing into a plain brown linen dress, Odine popped Kelvi in the front pocket, splashed water on her face, and headed out the door. To her surprise, Dominic Fisher was standing outside of it. His basic soldier’s garb of the last couple times Odine had seen him was replaced today with a high quality red and bronze uniform. The pants hugged his thick thighs closely, and the gleaming buttons emphasized the curve of his belly. Odine swallowed.

“Does the captain of the guard usually act as a humble visitor’s personal escort?” She asked, her tone light as she took in the empty hallway around them. Dominic rubbed a hand through the side of his close-cropped beard, then through his dark hair.

“As long as everyone stays alive, the captain of the guard can do as he pleases,” Dominic replied. “And the preferences of the prince and I aligned in this case - to see you safely to the ballroom for the meeting.”

“Oh,” Odine said, fingering the rough edge of her dress as she fought back a flush. “Well, thank you both, then.”

As Dominic turned and began to stride away, Odine hurried to follow him, and found herself adding:

“Your uniform looks nice.”

Dominic cast an incredulous look over his shoulder, which Odine couldn’t help returning with a sweet smile. She had a slight gap between her two front teeth, but otherwise, they were straight and neat. Her grin was marred only by her crooked tendency to lift the left side higher than the other without realizing. Dominic merely rolled his eyes and continued on as Odine quickly shuffled along behind him.

Several twists and turns down the winding stone passageways later, they were in the palace ballroom. It was as grand as the rest of the castle, with high ceilings, smooth floors for dancing, and glittering chandeliers. The competitors were all spread out along the base of the room, and though Odine was terrible at estimation, she thought there must have been at least a hundred other girls here. Meanwhile, up in a box overseeing the dance floor, sat the royal family - the king, the queen, and Prince Amory. On long ledges that fanned out from there sat local lords and ladies and gentry - many of whom had put up daughters of their own to join.

“I must return to the prince, excuse me,” Dominic told Odine as she gazed around the room.

“You’re excused,” Odine replied, offering Dominic a crooked grin when he blinked at her. “I shall see you later?”

“Yes, I’ll see you, Odine,” Dominic confirmed gruffly after a beat, then turned and left the room. A few minutes later he emerged from the curtain behind the royal family in their box seat, standing right behind Amory’s high-backed chair, filled every inch and then some with the prince’s bulk. Odine forced herself to pull her gaze away, and instead look around her.

A little less than half the girls that she could see appeared to have familiars. They weren’t necessary to cast magic by any means, but they could help strengthen and center your spells if you managed to find and connect with an animal on that level. Odine watched Felix creeping around the center of the room before she finally saw Meera, and she looked away quickly once she did.

At the top of the grand staircase at the front of the room, a courtier began to clear his throat to speak. But before giving him her full attention, Odine caught eyes with a girl across the room. Despite being so far away, the girl was difficult to miss - likely standing only an inch or two shorter than the massive form of Dominic himself, she had smooth brown skin a couple shades lighter than the oak of Odine’s staff. Much of her body was blocked by other competitors, but her face was round and beautiful, though clearly nervous. Her long, flowing hair was a shade of light green that recalled a kelp forest - she was from the lands near the south sea. Odine offered the large, lovely girl a smile, who blinked twice with kind hazel eyes, then gently smiled back.

“By order of His Royal Highness, King Bertram Coates, and Her Royal Highness, Queen Mary Coates, and His Royal Highness, Prince Amory Coates, I will have your attention,” the courtier at the top of the stairs announced primly, and Odine had to resist rolling her eyes at the waste of words. Who else would be ordering it?

“You are all here at the invitation of Their Majesties. Over the next year, you will be whittled down to a select few who will have the opportunity to further their studies with Prince Amory. Every week will see a different competition centering around the skills of being a lady - if you do not pass any of these tasks to our standards, you will be sent home.”

A low murmur arose from both the girls in the ballroom and the ledges around the royal family. Many had assumed only one or two girls per week would be eliminated - that didn’t seem to be the case.

“In between each event, we suggest you practice your skills and continue to train in the fine arts that you were raised with as ladies of this realm in order to set yourselves apart. Your first task shall take place four days’ hence. In the meantime, please exit the ballroom and prepare for introductions this evening, to take place in the banquet hall.”

The murmuring picked up as the girls began to leave. Being one of the last ones into the room meant Odine was swept along as well as the crowd moved out, and she was determined to swallow her fear as she got her feet under her and made her way carefully back to her room.

Odine knew she should spend the afternoon practicing homemaking spells, or penmanship, or whatever else it was that fine ladies learned in the kingdom. But instead, she rested, feeling the comfort and safety of a fortress impenetrable against monsters for the first time in her life. Even if the little voice in the back of her head spoke up on occasion to insist but then all of them must go SOMEWHERE, she diligently ignored it. Sleep came easily in her bedchamber.

As the hour grew later, Odine woke and changed into a moderately nice dress she had made recently - one of a pale blue, to match the outer ring of her eyes. It was still a basic linen, but lace trimming and a low v-neck offered at least something more interesting to look at than her plain dress from earlier.

When the knock on her door sounded, Odine was somehow surprised again to find Dominic behind it. She had assumed he’d be positioned in the dining hall far before the others were called to join the royal family. But clearly, what he had told her earlier was correct - he could do as he pleased, as long as everyone was safe. He was still in his red and bronze uniform from earlier, and he filled nearly the entire large doorway from top to bottom (and side to side) before he stood back to let Odine pass.

As Dominic took her in with his dark grey eyes, saying nothing at first, Odine found herself falling victim to the tendency many others had around her - speaking up solely to fill the silence. As she slipped past Dominic through the door, her forearm brushing briefly against the buttons valiantly holding together across his widest bits, she said:

“I know it isn’t much, but this is all I have.”

“You look fine,” Dominic said stiffly as Odine lightly gestured over her basic garb. He paused, then continued reluctantly. “I’ve never much seen the need for all the…frills many highborn ladies indulge in. Doesn’t change a lick of who a person is on the inside.”

“Frills can be fun, though,” Odine replied quietly, allowing her gaze to sweep over Dominic’s uniform. He shifted his large weight on his feet, avoiding her eyes as he fiddled with a snug button on his front.

“We’ll have to agree to disagree, miss…Odine. I’d rather be in my basics any day.”

“I understand. Function must be especially important over form as captain of the guard.”

“It is,” Dominic said, his voice edging on suspicious.

“And luckily, it would appear you have both. Shall we?”

Dominic just stared as Odine moved past him, down the hallway.

“The banquet hall is the other way, Odine.”

“Oh. Right. Thank you,” Odine said as she pivoted back to facing Dominic. He noted a muted flush at the base of her neck, then strode down the correct hallway.

A few minutes later, Odine found herself facing the entire throng of competitors outside the doors that led to the top of the stairs descending into the vast dining room. It was the makings of a grand entrance, with other doors below as an option for those working to enter the hall. Despite her nerves as Odine stared at the group, she nodded back at Dominic as he departed towards the other doors with a silent farewell.

“Please confirm your last name for me,” the courtier who had announced the rules of the competition earlier asked Odine as he made his way to her. She swallowed.

“Isn’t Odine enough?”

“No,” he snapped, looking up at her from the parchment in front of him. “It isn’t. What is your last name?”

“Nemei,” Odine whispered, head down.

“What? ‘Neemay’?” The courtier asked, mispronouncing her family name. Odine didn’t correct him, however. She simply nodded, and the courtier moved on.

Every girl in the hall looked stunning, having pulled out every possible stop for their official introduction to the tournament, and Odine felt very small and strange in her linen dress. Hers was just about the only outfit that didn’t sweep grandly across the floor, instead finishing high enough to glimpse her brown lace-up boots and ensure that she was not likely to trip. As the other girls glided into the banquet hall one at a time, in their order given by a servant of the royals, the courtier would announce their name and family sponsor before they made their way down the steps and to a table to eat. The royal family sat at the highest table, facing the stairs. Dominic stood at the prince’s right elbow, while Amory’s mother sat to his left, the king on her other side.

“Meera Strickland, from House Strickland,” the courtier announced. Meera appeared so good that it was difficult for Odine to look at her directly - which she realized was intentional. A glamor charm, that added an extra layer of fascination and beauty to an outfit and the person wearing it, even if it was difficult for most humans to comprehend. Nobody else really seemed to notice, Odine realized. They just half-looked at her adoringly.

“Lady Gertrude Abbas, of House Sami,” was read, and Odine watched the tall girl from earlier in the day hesitantly enter the dining hall. Her soft, curvy body was clad in a royal blue gown that balanced perfectly with the creamy brown of her skin. Unlike many of the other girls so far, Gertrude didn’t receive any encouragement from the others as she left the group. In fact, as her large frame disappeared behind the doors into the dining hall, a couple of snickers broke out among the others. Odine tensed, and Kelvi cast a wary eye from his pocket around the room.

Finally, it was Odine’s turn. Stiffly, she made her way to the door, and entered as the first notes of her name rang out.

“Odine Neemay, of House Strickland!”

Among the competitors already in the room, only Meera reacted - and that was clearly to explain to the girls around her that Odine was not actually of House Strickland. Meanwhile, likely due to the mispronunciation she had allowed to happen, many of the courtiers didn’t seem to recognize her, not appearing any more or less invested than before. But Odine noted the way Dominic and Amory immediately turned to each other, and the furrow on the brow of the king. As she made her way slowly down the stairs, something else caught her eye - an amulet against the king’s chest. On a gold chain, it was a large golden circle with a swirling purple center - something which she seemed to recognize, but could not for the life of her recall why.

Odine was relegated near the end of the long competitor’s dining table. The food in front of her was delicious, but she couldn’t force herself to eat more than a mouthful of each option. Still, with all the offerings of a royal feast, that afforded her more than enough nutrients relatively quickly. Odine was soon slowly sipping her wine as she cast her eyes around the room while attempting to look like she was doing nothing of the sort.

“Odine Nemei,” a voice said from behind her right shoulder, and she flinched imperceptibly as she turned in her seat and faced Dominic Fisher. She kept her face carefully blank, and took another sip of wine as her green eyes met his thundering grey ones.

“Yes?”

“‘Just Odine’ not work anymore?”

“It does.”

“Why?”

Odine hesitated as the probing look from Dominic’s eyes made the unspoken part of his question clear.

“It simply isn’t a conversation I ever enjoy having, sir.”

“Dominic,” the knight reminded, his gaze softening just slightly at her starkly honest reply. “Understood. Enjoy dinner…Odine.”

Dominic moved solidly away, and Odine heard a few of the girls giggling on the other side of her.

“What do you think of Prince Amory’s guard? Handsome, or no?”

“Mmm…handsome a stone or two ago, perhaps.”

“You’re too nice! I’d say much more than that.”

“Well…”

At this trailing off, Odine saw out of the corner of her eye the girls tilt their heads up to study the comparable but even chubbier prince.

“Oh, hush, all’s well as long as you are set to rule a kingdom.”

The giggling returned, and Odine took a larger mouthful of wine as she tried to tune into the other ambient noise of the busy hall. It mostly worked.
 
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Chapter Seven

Three nights later, Odine had spent most of her time napping, reading, and trying not to panic about the upcoming tasks. Kelvi cast an occasional concerned eye her way, in his vast wisdom, but Odine mostly ignored him. At this point, she knew there wasn’t much else she could truly do to ready herself for what was to come.

Just as she began to consider blowing out the candles and going to bed to prepare for the first trial the next day, a light knock sounded at her door. Curious, Odine stood from the smaller of the two seats in her room and crossed to open it. She still had to remind herself there was no need to prepare a curse before she did - it was impossible for it to be a monster behind the door. Somehow.

Still, when she found herself facing the crown prince on the other side, she couldn’t help but half-wish it had been a monster. At least then she knew what to do.

Unlike in the library, Amory had a proper shirt on - so no more glimpses of soft tanned flesh on his wide torso for Odine. But it was still much more casual than the regal attire he’d had on during the introductory meetings. No gems or fancy stitching, just a high quality black linen shirt that flowed over him and blended into casual black trousers. Both items of clothing were loose, but still didn’t do much to hide the prince’s broad form, which Odine noticed nearly filled the entire doorway. Not his height and shoulders too, like Dominic, but just the round sides of his large belly.

Odine swallowed hard.

“May I come in?” Amory asked, after what Odine realized too late was a pregnant pause where she remained frozen in the doorway, staring at him.

“Of course, your highness,” she said, trying to sweep off to the side of the entrance and curtsy at the same time. It caused her to stumble, and Amory’s usual jovial expression broke into an even wider grin as he squeezed himself sideways and into the room.

“Ah, I always forget about these tiny doors in the old wing,” he mused as he did, affectionately patting the frame before making his way to the larger of the two seats in Odine’s room. She swallowed hard again and followed, hovering behind the smaller seat that she had been reading in.

“So,” the prince continued, fixing his gaze upon Odine once he had seated himself with a soft oof, leaning back against the worn green velvet. “Couldn’t sleep, Dom’s out on patrol, and I thought I ought to check in on the competitor who so boldly lied to me.”

“I wouldn’t do that!” Odine protested without thinking. An flush flared from her chest, where her heart hammered uncomfortably, and up her pale neck. “I just didn’t…fully…answer.”

“Because we have met,” the prince continued, raising his thick, sandy eyebrows high enough to lose them in his curly hair as he watched Odine. “Why wouldn’t you tell me?”

“I’m sorry. I wanted…a second chance,” Odine admitted, slowly making her way to sitting in the chair next to him. Amory studied her.

“Why is that?”

“Because I was a strange, small child when we met. Then I…” Odine never knew how to phrase what had happened to her and her family in a way that didn’t seem dramatic or upsetting. “…became a refugee. I wanted you to see me as I am, instead,” Odine replied. After a beat, she added somewhat wryly, “as a strange, less-small adult.”

“There’s no shame in your past,” Amory said, his brow furrowing a little as he actually sat up and leaned slightly over his large stomach to catch Odine’s eye.

“You’re right,” she agreed. “And I apologize again for not being more forthwith, which is what you and your captain of the guard deserve. I took the opportunity for a fresh start because I selfishly don’t enjoy dwelling on it, but that was foolish and I hope you can forgive me.”

Odine’s throat ran dry at all the words and the presumption to ask for the crown prince’s forgiveness, but he only smiled and leaned back again. His hands came up to interlace and rest gently over his belly button, at the widest part of his middle. Odine determinedly kept her gaze on his face.

“You are forgiven, Miss Nemei,” Amory replied. “Or - I know you prefer Odine. And that’s fine. I am sorry, too, about your home and your parents.”

Odine gave him a small, grateful smile. Meanwhile, the prince turned his attentions to the books on the table in front of them.

“Have you read any of our selections yet?”

“I have,” Odine replied. “I finished The Light of the Moon last night. It was lovely.”

“Yes?” The prince said, looking at her with much more apparent interest. Odine had to resist shrinking back when faced with such a direct gaze from his deep, handsome brown eyes. “What parts did you enjoy?”

“I…” Odine tried to fight back a soft pink blush that threatened to rise on her cheeks. Any difference in coloration made a bold statement, and she worked hard to keep many if not most of her feelings to herself. “I liked the story, of course, and I thought all of the characters and their romantic connections were particularly well written.”

This seemed to be a good answer, for the prince’s intense gaze was broken up a bit by a broad smile that bunched some adorable cheek fat into the bottom of his eyes. In The Light of the Moon, there were two sets of characters who ended up together. The prince and a peasant girl who had saved him, and two gods of the realm - both men.

“Yes? None of it…bothered you?” The prince asked after a moment, more hesitant than Odine had seen him before.

“Why would it bother me?” Odine replied, cocking her head a bit. Amory’s open and vulnerable expression emboldened her, and she added, “I suppose if I could change one thing…the prince would have looked more like you.”

“Thank you,” Amory chuckled in response. “But what I meant was - some people are traditionalists about fairy tales. That anything beyond a man and a woman, often a prince and his princess and no one else, is…bothersome.”

“Oh,” Odine said, blinking. “No, I don’t feel that way. Traditional can be enjoyable, of course, but the realism of the gods of the story exploring all connections, regardless of position or appearance, and finding their way to each other in the end because of who they truly are, not what they were born and present as - I connected with it much more deeply than just a prince and his often rather one-note chosen consort.”

Amory was looking at Odine in a wide-eyed awe that made her want to cover herself with a blanket and stare back, but instead she swallowed and ran a thumb over the equally entranced Kelvi.

“Do you think many of your fellow competitors would agree?” Amory finally asked, and Odine hesitated. It would be easy to lump them all together, she knew, but likely unfair.

“I’m not certain. From what I’ve seen, being raised in a high house of the central kingdom can lead to more…traditional values,” Odine spoke slowly, thinking about the way Calsum Strickland would cast offhanded but still vicious judgment on any and all even mildly unusual relationships. “But at least some of the other ladies must agree. We aren’t all from the central kingdom, after all, and even those who are could have broken free from the views of their upbringing.” Odine wouldn’t have bet on it, though, judging from what she’d overheard so far. Still, better to be generous in the face of the prince than actively sabotaging her competition - even if she could, in all honesty, have used the leg up.

“Interesting,” was all Amory said, settling further back in his chair in a way that just made him seem all the rounder. There was clearly no sucking in or attempts to hide his impressively soft size, and it made Odine feel weak. Of course being raised with everything at your disposal would lead to confidence, but that didn’t make it any less attractive. “What are you reading next?”

“I’ve just begun Straggler’s Peak,” Odine replied, reaching out to gently finger the narrow spine on the table. “It’s quite thrilling so far.”

“Oh, just wait,” Amory said with a grin. “Then if you haven’t started The Traveler’s Heart, may I?”

“Of course,” Odine said, surprised he’d even ask. They were HIS library’s books, after all. But instead of taking the book from the table and leaving, as Odine expected, Amory simply opened the book in his seat and settled back to read. He rested the bottom of the pages on his belly, parts of the binding sinking softly into the plump flesh. She watched him for only a moment, unable to fathom what had turned her luck around in so short a time, before she picked up Straggler’s Peak and continued her adventure on the pages next to the prince.
 
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Chapter Eight

Blearily exhausted but endlessly happy the next morning, Odine hopped out of bed to select a competition outfit. She couldn’t say for certain how long the prince had stayed the night before, but they had read in comfortable silence nearly until dawn, snacking on various cheeses and bread that Odine had in her room, at which point he had given his apologies for taking up space for so long in her room before leaving her. It was all a bit of a joyful blur, but Odine hoped her assurances that it was no trouble were both convincing and not overwhelming.

In the end, Odine chose a deep green day dress to wear. It wasn’t as nice as her blue dress, but nor was it quite as plain as the brown dress. Normally, darker colors caused her coloring to look frail, but the green brought out her eyes and Kelvi’s scales and kept her looking strong - Odine hoped. After a few deep breaths and splashes of water on her face, Odine headed out to the ballroom - only briefly disappointed when no enormous, scowling guard greeted her at her door.

Unfortunately, despite her previous help, Odine still had some trouble navigating the twisting corridors of the castle. As a result, she was once again one of the last girls to enter the ballroom. Inside, the dance floor had been covered in a series of tables, each with two settings that contained multiple jars behind them. Most of the spots had been taken, each of the competitors in various beautiful jewel tone dresses with flawlessly applied makeup, chatting as they waited for it all to begin. Odine found she could actually look right at Meera again - after all, a glamor charm wouldn’t do much when she actually needed to successfully complete a task, rather than just look good.

The last spot left open was in the back and to the far left, next to - Odine’s heart lifted a little in relief as she saw the towering, soft form of Lady Gertrude Abbas occupying the other spot on the table. As Odine approached, not wanting to frighten her table partner, she spoke up softly.

“Hello, Lady Gertrude.”

Gertrude turned with an anxious expression on her lovely face, but it eased a little in relief when she saw Odine.

“Hello there. Miss…Neemay?”

“Oh, just Odine is fine.”

“Oh, okay. And I…well…if you like…I actually just prefer Gertie,” the much taller girl blurted, as though trying to get it all out before she lost nerve. Odine nodded.

“Okay, Gertie. It’s nice to officially meet you.”

“And you, Odine. You’re from…House Strickland, yes?”

Odine allowed the slightest wrinkle of her nose.

“Yes and no. I’m not related to them, thankfully, but they sponsored me.”

“They did?” Gertie’s hazel eyes blinked. “I didn’t think there was a single girl here who was sponsored by someone they weren’t related to.”

“I don’t think there was, until me.”

“What happened?”

Odine told her new friend the basic story, carefully sticking to mostly fact without any inserted emotion.

“Oh, but how gallant!” Gertie said, looking from Odine up to where Amory and Dominic were positioned. Rather than being in the box seat this time, the royal family and their guards were at a long table at the top of the stairs, still affording them a view of all the competitors while being a little more accessible. “Rescuing you from a fangslug and securing you a spot in the tournament? What a whirlwind!”

Odine only nodded, having smoothly skipped over exactly how the fangslug had died. She had liked Gertie on sight, but that didn’t mean she immediately trusted how the lady would react if she knew Odine was a practiced monster-slayer. She then followed Gertie’s gaze, and before she could stop herself, half-lifted a hand in greeting to Amory and Dominic at the top of the stairs. Dominic immediately raised his dark eyebrows, and Amory grinned back. Gertie looked from the prince to Odine in excitement, then saw her table partner’s hand, which Odine quickly put back down.

“Oh, my,” was all Gertie said, breathlessly. The lady brushed her hands down the sides of her dress, a beautiful long-sleeved velvet in a deep purple-grey. It made her dark features shine with what appeared to be an inner glow

“Are you excited?” Odine asked after a beat, keeping her voice low so none of the other chatting competitors could hear them.

“I…I suppose I am. Who wouldn’t be?”

“Anyone might not be,” Odine replied. “And that would be just fine too.”

“Well…” Gertie paused, considering. “I am excited, though. And a bit…well…a lot…nervous. I won’t end up as princess or anything, I know that, but it is nice to be here and considered.”

“Why wouldn’t you end up as princess?”

“I…well…” Gertie swept her gaze and a loose sleeve, subtly gesturing to all the beautiful and accomplished competitors in the room. “I’m sure there’s something I missed in my own training. And out of all these girls? I can’t possibly win over them all. And…” Gertie looked down, swallowing hard enough that Odine could see her throat tighten and loosen. “I don’t…I don’t think princesses are usually so…um…big.”

Odine blinked at her.

“Gertie…have you seen the crown prince himself?” Words that might have sounded harsh coming from any of the others, Odine spoke gently, lightly. The pair glanced up at the high table, and both simultaneously blushed.

“Of course, but…well, even so, I’m practically taller than he is. And he’s still so handsome, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” Odine agreed. She actually suspected Gertie would always be taller than him, especially in any sort of heel, but she didn’t say that. “And you are lovely. There’s nothing wrong with being tall as a woman, despite whatever else the world may tell you.”

Gertie’s blush deepened, but before she could reply, a form appeared at the top of the stairs, clearing his throat. The courtier they all recognized now as leading the announcements unraveled a scroll in front of him, and everyone in the ballroom fell silent.

“Ladies, today you will be preparing tea for Their Majesties. You will be judged on time, flavor, and presentation.”

As he spoke, a teapot revealed itself in the center of each of the table’s settings. It hadn’t been an invisibility charm - they must have been tucked away in a pocket between worlds, still on the table’s settings, but not on the settings here. Odine couldn’t help feeling impressed as well as full of dread. At the same time, the labels on the jars in front of them revealed themselves as being various types of teas and additives.

“Your time starts now.”

Immediately, the competitors launched into a flurry of action. Gertie reached right away for a deep red tea, as she and every other girl lit a flame beneath their teapots. It was a simple charm used to both light and heat rooms, and for cooking - it was one of the first spells ever taught. Even a child could do it.

But Odine couldn’t, and she froze. Kelvi squeezed anxiously at her forearm, but even that didn’t help. She tried to sort through the flurry of thoughts hitting her at once. She knew how she liked her tea - incredibly strong, and savory. But she also knew how the Stricklands liked their tea - weak, and sweet. Was that how all the gentry liked their tea? Is that how she should be preparing it for the royal family? None of which was as important as starting to boil her water, of course, but Odine couldn’t focus her mind enough to shorten the curse she used to light her candles in her room at night - and as one wrong syllable would put the room up in flames, she just stood, staring at her teapot.

Gertie leaned her soft body more towards the center of the table, grabbing onto a silky creamer to add to her own pot of tea. But while she was there, Odine felt a small flick of energy come her way - and hidden from the royal family and other competitors by Gertie’s girth, a small flame lit under Odine’s pot.

Odine stayed quiet, though she felt her eyes blur with gratitude. Gertie wasn’t looking at her, though, still keeping busy with her own tea-making despite the help she had silently given her competition.

Finally spurred into action, Odine grabbed several jars from in front of her. First, a strong, smoky yellow tea, which paired perfectly with an earthy black tea from near the border to the north. Finally, Odine added a pinch of both white lemon tea and green floral tea, to offset the heaviness. Back home, she used to drink the yellow tea every morning - creating this particular infusion with the rest only for special occasions.

Once again, she was one of the last. Everyone else steeped theirs for three minutes at most, then elegantly arranged the most beautiful cups they could charm into their specific designs on a tray, before bringing them up to the royal table. The vast majority elicited polite smiles from Queen Mary, King Bertram, and Prince Amory as they sipped. After serving, each competitor would stand off to the side of the room to await the results.

Finally satisfied that the flavor would have fully infused, Odine set a tray with plain blue-green clay cups with no handles. She didn’t try to charm them into something they weren’t - she hoped the tea would speak for itself. Approaching the head table, Odine dipped into as low of a curtsy as she safely could with her tray before carefully serving each of the royals a mug of their own. If nothing else, after her many years in servitude, she knew how to do that properly.

“Oh, dear,” Queen Mary said, wrinkling her nose as she took a tentative sniff and then sip. “This is…quite strong.” She then looked expectantly at Odine in front of her, as though asking her to explain herself.

“Yes, your majesty,” Odine said after a somewhat awkward beat. “It is my personal favorite.”

“This?”

Odine merely declined her head in confirmation.

“Interesting,” King Bertram said after a couple sips of his own.

“I love it,” Amory declared. “There’s no mistaking that I am not drinking mere water. This is powerful and delicious - a tea truly fit for a crown prince.”

Odine, Queen Mary, and King Bertram all looked at Prince Amory with varying degrees of surprise.

“Thank you, your highness,” Odine said quietly after another skeptical glance in her direction from the Queen.

“Very well, thank you,” King Bertram said, dismissing her with a wave of his hand. Ears roaring with terror, Odine made her way to the wall, positioning herself next to Gertie.

After the last couple competitors, one of whom was unfortunate enough to trip on her way rushing up the stairs to serve the tea to their majesties, the Queen handed the courtier a small list. Through the panicked whirring in her mind, Odine heard that only three girls would be eliminated this week. Two from such upper crust families that they had clearly never made their own cup of tea in their life, and the other being the unlucky girl who had tripped - the plain, plump only daughter of a lord of the western plains. But she didn’t seem too bothered by it, likely due to having several older brothers to manage house affairs and other marriage prospects by virtue of being so well connected. The first two, however, began to throw the sort of tantrums only seen from those who had never in their life been told “no”.

“I would advise you not get comfortable,” the courtier had warned the girls after finishing the list of those going home. “This is only the beginning. Get rest and practice in before the next task, ladies.”

“I hope it’s cleaning magic next week,” whispered a girl a few positions down from Odine.

“I’m sure it will be. They must need to get that out of the way early,” the girl next to her whispered back. Odine felt her vision blur again, and knew she couldn’t be here any longer.

“Gertie,” she said between clenched teeth, and the taller girl looked down at her. “Thank you.”

With that, Odine stumbled out of the ballroom. She knew it was unladylike in appearance, but she could barely get the necessary words out before the tears came, and she couldn’t allow anyone to see her that way.

Once Odine was down a couple turns of the hallway, far enough away that the voices in the ballroom faded, she allowed herself to utter a single sob aloud as she buried her face in her hands, sliding down the wall. It was the kind of humiliating cry that made it impossible to catch your breath until you were nearly wrung out, and Odine just gave in.

Until a few minutes later, when the sound of footsteps reached her ears. She had purposefully taken the opposite direction from most living quarters, but someone was coming. Taking in a frantic, shaky breath, Odine stood, wiping at her eyes. Kelvi slithered his way from her arm up to her collarbone, comfortingly. Moments later, the imposing form of Dominic Fisher rounded the corner, stopping abruptly as he saw Odine.

“What’s wrong?” He demanded, and Odine just looked at him, uncomfortably aware of the way her eyes burned - indicating a swollen red that would undoubtedly stand out against the white of her skin. She couldn’t meet his eyes as a result, and instead kept her gaze on the middle of his chest, which was an impressive balance of strong and soft.

“You passed, Odine. You’re still here. So what is it?”

Odine took a breath, her mind still filled with buzzing, but somewhat calmed by his presence.

“Please,” he finally added, a little more softly than his previous gruff questions. Odine knew that if there was any time to dance around the truth, to give only the barest amount of necessary information, that this was it. But instead, she spoke with stark honesty.

“I can’t do white magic.”

“What?”

“I can’t do white magic,” Odine repeated, and felt her face crumple just slightly. With a shake in her normally steady voice, she continued, “and I don’t…I don’t wish to leave.”

“What…at all?” Dominic continued, and a ghost of a smile passed through Odine’s expression as she recalled her similar reaction to his news that no monsters could penetrate the palace walls.

“At all. I only have dark magic.”

“But…” realization dawned in Dominic’s eyes. “That’s how you killed the fangslug.”

Odine shrugged, not willing to confirm or deny. She’d argue that her training and skill helped her kill the fangslug just as much as the propensity for darkness that lurked beneath her pale skin, but she didn’t much feel like explaining that in the moment.

“How does that happen?” Dominic asked, searching her face as though he’d find the answers there. Only practicing white magic was commonplace, especially with the dark arts known for being particularly difficult and dangerous to master. But an inability to practice one or the other was all but unheard of.

“I wish I knew,” Odine snapped in reply. Dominic raised his eyebrows at the surprising heat in her words, but didn’t chastise her.

“The candles in your room? The teapot?”

“Rewritten curses. And help,” Odine admitted quietly.

“Have you tried to seek out a familiar? One to hone light magic?”

Odine merely raised an eyebrow and pulled down her collar to reveal Kelvi. Dominic blinked.

“It isn’t Kelvi’s fault,” she said. “He helps. I’m just…incapable.”

Dominic nodded, paused, sighed, then nodded again.

“Right. Come with me.”

Without even a glance behind him, Dominic began to stride down the hallway. Odine’s stomach dropped, but without seeing much more of a choice, she followed.
 
Last edited:

Tad

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The great white north, eh?
I didn't know that what I needed was a fresh story that I wasn't so behind in ... or maybe I just needed more GhostBoo writing? Whatever I loved this, thank you, and I look forward to the rest!
 

DunnInnDusted

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Yay a new GhostBoo story!! I was just starting to re-read your catalogue for the fifth time when I saw this come up on recent additions. After a terrible week. I may have cried a few tears of joy :) Thank you! I look forward to the rest!
 
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Yay a new GhostBoo story!! I was just starting to re-read your catalogue for the fifth time when I saw this come up on recent additions. After a terrible week. I may have cried a few tears of joy :) Thank you! I look forward to the rest!
Thank you and oh no! I hope your week gets better!! I've been dealing with a few brain spiders myself, but I at least managed to get some editing done, which is something!
 
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After several twists and turns and descending a set of stairs, Dominic paused and turned back to her.

“Tell me something. How is it that a northerner has a snake as a familiar? How does he even stay warm?”

“From me,” Odine replied, her voice tilting dry enough that the obviously was more than implied. Naturally, this only frustrated the soldier more.

“But how did you even find him?”

“I didn’t,” Odine said. “He found me.”

A beat, during which Dominic stared incredulously at Odine. She looked pleasantly back. Stifling a groan, Dominic turned and continued moving down the progressively narrower passageways.

“Fine,” he growled. “Keep your secrets.”

What could have been hours or minutes of moving into the depths of the castle later, they reached a low, dead-end corridor. Dominic had to incline his tall head away from the encroaching ceiling, and the only sound was an occasional drip.

“Okay. Odine. I am going to help you,” Dominic said firmly.

“Dominic, I can’t learn white magic. I’ve tried. If I know a related curse, I can try to alter it, but that isn’t always safe in high stress situations.”

“That isn’t it. I believe you. What I meant was I will do it. I’ll cast the necessary white spells for you.”

Odine’s disbelieving eyes bore into Dominic’s, and a heavy silence settled over them as the drip echoed in the background.

“Why?”

“Because…” Dominic rubbed his large hand over his eyes, clearly exasperated. “Because, if this palace must be full of social climbers for the next year or more, one of them may as well be you.”

Quiet. Drip. Quiet. Their eye contact never wavering until Dominic lowered his gaze briefly to the floor. Odine’s mouth was bone dry, and she couldn’t begin to think of what to say.

“You’ll be fine for next week,” Dominic continued. “It isn’t magic-based. After that, we can meet to train.”

“Are you supposed to tell me that?”

“About the next task? No, but do you think the highborn competitors aren’t being given forbidden insights and more?”

Fair point.

“So,” Dominic continued, “we will meet after the next week.”

“Here?”

“No. There’s no room here,” he said, gesturing around the narrow passage for emphasis. “And our quarters would be too conspicuous. I’ll let you know where we will be before you need to be there.”

“Okay,” Odine said. “Thank you, Dominic.”

“Don’t thank me yet,” he replied. “We should be getting back before anyone wonders.”

Odine nodded, and stepped aside to let Dominic pass by her to lead again. He hesitated, seemed to debate saying something, but instead clenched his jaw and moved past her. It was a squeeze for the portly guard - his round stomach pressed into Odine’s own soft torso as he pushed past. Odine stopped breathing as she felt the connection followed by a light, frustrated sigh on her neck as Dominic exhaled from holding his middle in to pass.

“You could have led us back upstairs at least, Odine,” Dominic said in exasperation, beginning to stride out of the dead-end corridor.

“I wouldn’t underestimate my truly dismal sense of direction, sir,” Odine replied as she hurried along behind him. He didn’t reply aside from another, deeper sigh. Soon, they were in the main landing of the castle, and went their separate ways with only a slight nod at the other.
 
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Chapter Nine

A few nights later, there was another group meal in the banquet hall. The courtier in charge of the tournament, who Odine had learned was named Balthazar Graves, had pulled aside three girls before the meal began. This included the first two girls to serve their tea last week, and Meera. Each returned to the group looking varying degrees of pleased and smug, but kept silent until they all entered the hall and it became obvious what was discussed. At the high table with the royal family were three additional chairs. One on the prince’s right, and two across the table from him and the king and queen on his left. As the favorites from the last competition, they would dine above all the others tonight.

Luckily, Odine was able to snag a spot next to Gertie this evening. She noticed that flanking Amory’s chair were two guards she didn’t recognize - Dominic must be out on patrol. Gertie followed her gaze, delicately sipping white wine out of her cup.

“How nice would that be?” She said quietly, tearing a piece of bread in two to dip into a mixture of oil and vinegar on a side plate. “I suppose I wasn’t certain how red tea would go over in the central kingdom, anyway. I think they are used to a bit less, um…”

“Flavor?” Odine suggested, and the girls actually giggled briefly together as they locked eyes.

“Well, as you said it, not me…”

“At least we’re still here,” Odine begrudgingly admitted after a moment of silence.

“You’re right, of course,” Gertie hurried to agree.

“But it’d be a nicer to be there,” Odine continued, and the pair glanced up at the high table. Prince Amory was leaning forward over his broad belly, reaching for the table’s bowl of potatoes. He was smiling politely at something Meera said, to Odine’s irritation. But before he could serve himself, the queen tilted her face towards his, and her lips began to move rapidly. Amory’s dark eyes went from warm to shuttered, and he slowly leaned himself back, returning to his relaxed position in his chair without any additional potatoes.

“Oh…” Gertie breathed, dismayed.

“I may take that back,” Odine said, surprising herself with the slight growl in her usually even tone.

“The poor prince,” Gertie said, turning back to her plate. She nudged at her own potatoes sadly.

“Were your parents ever cruel about…?” Odine nodded towards the food on Gertie’s plate.

“Oh, no. Being plump is a sign of comfort and prosperity at home - they would never have wanted me to feel badly about it. But when I leave there…” Gertie chewed on her soft bottom lip, tucking some of her green hair behind her lightly pointed brown ear. “There are whispers. There’s only so much…well. I’m not the most comfortable with attention of any sort. But being the biggest girl in the room often brings that along with it.”

Odine nodded, understanding in her own way, even if she knew her experience wasn’t exactly what Gertie had to deal with. So she kept respectfully quiet and listened.

“But the prince always holds himself wonderfully, despite it all,” Gertie continued, casting an admiring glance over her shoulder before looking back at Odine. “And his captain of the guard too - I’ve never seen a man carry himself so well even when he’s…you know…even larger than I!”

Odine grinned at her friend, and Gertie smiled in relief back. Kelvi had curled his way down Odine’s arm in the warmth and comfort of the hall and Gertie’s friendship, and Gertie admired the familiar with just a hint of envy.

“It is impressive,” Odine said. “But your family is also right - there’s nothing wrong with being plump, even when you’re not as active as the captain of the guard, and I wish the rest of the kingdom could see it too.”

“Even if they don’t,” Gertie said, her eyes glancing towards the girls at the head table who were laughing and flicking their hair at Prince Amory’s words. “I imagine that won’t change the outcome much here.”

Unable to argue, Odine took a gulping mouthful of her red wine and slowly swallowed.

“Gertie,” Odine said, keeping her voice low enough that only her friend could hear, eyes looking across the room as she recalled her helplessness during the first task. “You know that I owe you a great debt, right?”

“Oh, don’t say that, Odine! It was nothing. You just needed a little help.”

“I am only still here because of you,” Odine replied firmly, but gently. “I would have had to leave…to gods know where, as the Stricklands would never have me back. Not that I’d want them to, but…just my thanks are not enough, and I hope you will allow me to make it up to you when the opportunity arises.”

Finally, Odine brought her gaze back to her soft friend. Gertie smiled calmly back.

“Okay. When the opportunity arises, I promise I will let you.”

“Thank you.”
 
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Later that night, as Odine was considering moving from her chair to the bed, there was a knock on her door.

She wasn’t surprised to see Prince Amory behind it again. He hadn’t finished The Traveler’s Heart when he was here last, waving Odine off when she had asked if he wanted to take it with him. So a part of her suspected, and hoped, that he’d be back to finish it.

“Evening, Odine,” he said, his grin not quite as broad as usual, but still warm and welcoming. “Are you busy?”

“No, your highness,” she quickly assured, smiling back. “Please, come in.”

Amory hesitated for only a moment before squeezing his way sideways through the doorframe. Odine held the door open for him, losing her breath and all thoughts in her head as his exceptionally broad waist brushed her fingers that closed around the edge of the door.

“Sometimes I think my mother has cursed the doors of this castle to shrink, just a little, every time I move through them. Just to teach me a lesson,” Amory groused as he did, continuing towards the seats near the bookshelf. Odine, as was often the case when someone mentioned a use for dark magic, was immediately aware of exactly how that would work and the proper curse to make it happen. She fervently fought a blush from highlighting too many of her features, pushing the thought down and away. It wasn’t relevant, anyway - the walls and the doors of the palace were all protected against magical interference. Otherwise any potential dark usurper could bring down the castle on a whim, or unlock what they weren’t entitled to once inside.

“You know,” Amory continued as he slowly sat, “I believe at this point we may well be considered friends. So if you don’t mind the thought, and having me over on occasion to read, you can always call me Amory while I’m here. Or at least, not ‘your highness’.”

“I would like that…Amory,” Odine said honestly, following the prince towards the seats. But as she did, she heard a gurgling sound come from the prince’s plump middle as he leaned back in the seat. It was accompanied by a blush of his own, highlighting the freckles along the bridge of his nose and cheekbones. He rubbed an absentminded hand along his side, softly squeezing a handful of belly fat as though to discourage it from speaking up again. Odine thought about the group meal earlier, and Amory being obviously dissuaded from eating to his fill.

“Wait here a moment,” she said, heading to the other side of the room. There, she had magicked herself a decent icebox, using an altered curse than usually called down a sudden and deadly blizzard. On a broad wooden board, she loaded up what was left of her food - a heavy loaf of brown bread, a thick quarter cut from a wheel of bleu-veined cheese, a bunch of grapes, and two cool-skinned apples. As she came back to the other corner of the room, she carefully set the wooden board on the table, in between the scattered books.

“Oh, gods, thank you,” Amory breathed, leaning up with a soft grunt to be able to reach the food. But before he did, he glanced at her - his expression and words a bit shyer than Odine had seen before. “Are you certain you don’t mind?”

“Of course not,” she assured, waving her hand to physically brush away any uncertainty. “Food is meant to be enjoyed, and that often means shared. Please.”

Prince Amory didn’t need to be told twice, leaning forward eagerly at her confirmation. His thick middle folded in two as he did, with a roll forming beneath his soft chest, and the larger section below draping further into his lap. Rather than the loose black clothing of last time, Amory was clad in a light blue v-neck cloth shirt with long sleeves. This gave extra room around his arms and chest, but hugged his love handles and front apron of his belly much more closely. Because of this, Odine could clearly see the imprint of his deep belly button as he began to spread the thick cheese over his section of bread, and she had to force herself to look away. Helping herself to the other end of the bread, Odine ripped away the heel, then took a bite of it along with a section of apple.

Nearly in sync, they sighed happily at the flavors.

“So, Odine, have you finished Straggler’s Peak?”

“Not yet. The Light of the Moon is difficult to follow, and with the stress of the last week…concentrating has been tricky.”

“What stress?” Amory asked, his tone baffled, but when Odine looked at him in surprise he gave her a wink and took another large bite of bread, cheese, grapes, AND apple. Oh - he was teasing.

“May I ask you something, Amory?”

“You may try,” he replied, his tone now loftily magnanimous as he chewed. Odine blushed, momentarily unsteadied yet thrilled each time the prince joked around with her.

“Did you truly like the tea I served?”

“It was…” Amory looked up, thinking, helping himself to another bite. He took the time to chew, swallow, and grin at Odine - allowing her to sweat with nerves. “…different. I certainly didn’t dislike it, and I meant what I said - it was a strong drink worthy of a prince.”

“I do tend to prefer strong flavors,” Odine admitted, gesturing lightly at the cheese on the board, known for its extremely deep and rich taste. It was one of the more controversial flavors, making it easier to get ahold of than the sweet, creamy basic cheeses favored by much of the central kingdom. “Ones that…grow on you. But what is your favorite tea? So I know for next time?”

Amory smirked, and Odine bit down hard on her heel of bread, realizing what she must sound like. There more than likely wasn’t going to be a next time for tea in the competition, so it would have to be referring to…Odine becoming a member of the household.

Whoops.

“Honestly? I don’t really like tea much at all. It’s often served too weak, and if I was going to be drinking something sweet, why not just honey wine? But…” Amory leaned forward again, his gaze locked on Odine until the last moment where he looked down and began to serve himself another piece of bread and cheese. “…I could certainly see your tea growing on me.”

“Noted,” Odine murmured, picking up Straggler’s Peak from the table to hide her face in.

“It does get better,” Amory said, and she looked up in surprise to see him gesturing at the book in her hands, which was marked not quite halfway through.

“I trust you,” she replied, and they exchanged a brief smile before Amory picked up The Traveler’s Heart. After a moment, he completed his piece of bread - stacked high with cheese and fruit - with another thick piece of bread, creating a sandwich. Leaning back, Amory rested both the bottom of the book and his food on his broad, appropriately shelf-like belly. Odine allowed herself only a moment to observe the way they sank into his middle before turning to the words on the page in front of her. They weren’t in focus yet, but she concentrated on breathing, and soon, they became clear.
 

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